A Royal Flush In The AL Wild-Card Game

The MLB playoffs started in about as dramatic a fashion as you can get, with the Kansas City Royals rallying multiple times—from 2-0 down in the first, 7-3 down in the eighth and finally 8-7 down in the 12th when they scored twice and beat the Oakland A’s 9-8. In the short history of the wild-card game, this is easily the best one played and will likely hold the designation for a while.

If it was an up-and-down roller coaster for the Royals, it was even more so for the decisions of their manager Ned Yost. The manager first maneuvered his team out of the game, then back in. It’s hard to think of a single baseball game that could not only be overshadowed by the manager more than anyone, but for it to be such a mix of good and bad decisions.
The bad decision—with a 3-2 lead in the sixth and two runners aboard with no one out, Yost pulls starter James Shields and goes Yordano Ventura, normally a starter. The goal, as emphasized from the outset by TBS’ fine announcing crew of Ernie Johnson, Ron Darling and Cal Ripken Jr., was to get to the seventh, where the bullpen could take over. Ventura gave up a three-run blast to Brandon Moss, his second home run of the night, then two more runs and appeared to end the Kansas City season.
BaseballThere were two debatable decisions made by Yost. The first is the decision to pull Shields. There’s an argument to be made for the fact that he’s your ace, and you let him escape his own jam in the sixth. I’ll defend Yost on this one—in a regular season game, you never make that move, but the Royal edge in this postseason is bullpen depth. It makes sense to pull out all the stops in any game, and certainly a winner-take-all elimination game.
But for all of Yost’s correct “outside-the-box” thinking there, he jumped right back into the box. His bullpen trio is Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Normally you wait until the seventh inning to bring them in. As Darling correctly picked up why not start that an inning earlier? Instead of asking each one to get three outs, you ask them to get four. Or for someone to go two innings, or however you split it up, but given that it’s three relievers you can spread the additional outs among them.
I don’t understand why manage Shields like it’s a playoff game, but manage his bullpen like it’s a game in the middle of July where you don’t want to get carried away going to the pen too quickly. It’s called dysfunction and it nearly cost his team the season.

But Kansas City rallied and another Yost decision was a big part of it. His team is built on the running game, and Yost did not abide foolish conventional wisdom that says you don’t run when you’re behind. His team stole seven bases on the night and stayed on the attack, as they scored three times in the eighth and then tied the game in the ninth.
I’ve never understood the logic that says base-stealing teams shouldn’t stay aggressive when they fall behind. Yes, I understand the risks of the stolen base in general often aren’t worth it when you’re behind. But when the focal point of your offense is the running game, that’s what you have to keep doing.
Kansas City wasn’t going to slug its way back into the game—at least not unless George Brett would have come down from his box upstairs to hit. For readers who don’t remember him, this is a man whose postseason exploits included the following…

  • A three-run bomb in Yankee Stadium in a decisive Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS that tied the score 6-6 in the eighth.
  • Three home runs in his first three at-bats in Game 3 of the 1978 ALCS, again in Yankee Stadium.
  • Another three-run jack in the Bronx, this one turning a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 win in Game 3 of the 1980 ALCS and giving the Royals their first pennant.
  • A four-hit night against the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 3 of the 1985 ALCS when the Royals had lost the first two games. They eventually won the series in seven games with Brett as MVP.

Yup, the man could hit. Especially so in the clutch. There was no one like that hanging around in last night’s KC lineup, so good for Yost to work his running game.

Much was made—correctly so—about this being Kansas City’s first playoff game since that 1985 season when they won the World Series. Echoes of that team were awakened last night. That Royal team made multiple comebacks—they remain the only team to overcome a 3-1 series deficit in both the LCS & World Series.
They were down to their last three outs in Game 6 of the World Series before rallying, with no small help from an umpire’s call that would never stand up in the age of instant replay. And they scored 11 runs to win Game 7. So that means in their last two postseason games, the Royals are averaging 10 runs a game. I suspect sabermetricians will dispute the validity of a stat averaging games played nearly three decades a part.
Kansas City now moves on to play the Los Angeles Angels—the team KC chased down to win the old AL West title in 1985. That series begins Thursday, along with Detroit-Baltimore, the other ALDS series.
Wild-card action resumes tonight with San Francisco in Pittsburgh for an 8 PM ET start on ESPN.